Friday, April 18, 2008

Detroit School Of Rock Success Story

(FORTUNE Small Business) -- If you think you can't launch a business in these tough times, think again. I recently met an entrepreneur who confirmed my belief that anything is possible if you have the right idea and sufficient passion.

A few weeks back, I listed some office furniture on Craigslist. A friendly guy named Jason Gittinger responded moments later. He was on the prowl for a good deal. Gittinger described himself as "just a drummer" but also mentioned that he was starting a business.

He stopped by the next day, and I found myself completely taken with him. Of course, it helped that he'd used as a key resource to write his business plan, but what interested me most was his incredible, contagious passion.

Based in Royal Oak, Mich., The Detroit School of Rock and Pop Music is Gittinger's dream business come true. The newfangled music school launches this week and promises to eliminate much of the drudgery of learning to play an instrument.

Instead of traditional music lessons, Gittinger's for-profit school immerses students in an actual five-member band of similarly skilled wannabes who jam together regularly, supplemented by practice sessions with a "music mentor."

Yes, the music usually sounds a little off, but the rising rock stars have a blast, which is critical to keeping them enthusiastic and engaged.

While the secret ingredient to Gittinger's business plan is this fun factor, the secret to getting the business off the ground - even in spite of the tough economic time - has been his passion.

Unlike so many who write business plans but never put them into action, Gittinger successfully scrounged all the key ingredients he needed to hang the "Open" sign on his door.

At every turn, his passion - verging on obsession - was pivotal.

For example, Gittinger needed to finance the build-out of the space. The drummer-turned-entrepreneur succeeded in getting an SBA-backed bank loan, which is no easy task. How did he do it? Gittinger not only wrote a business plan, but also created a 500-page training manual for the teachers whom he planned to hire. When he tossed that manual on the banker's desk, it became obvious that Gittinger wasn't your average drummer.

When he found his dream location, he got the owner excited about his concept for the school and put that "warm fuzzy" to work. He was able to negotiate the monthly rent down from $3,800 to $2,900. And because the owner took a shine to his vision, Gittinger was able to arrange for a portion of those monthly payments to be allocated to a future purchase of the property. Smart.

Next, how to furnish the place? It needed the "cool factor" musicians crave and insulated spaces where they could jam. Gittinger heard that the dilapidated Michigan State Fairgrounds was being demolished.

He got in touch with a foreman and offered to remove the wooden basketball court floor before the building was destroyed. Another sweet deal. Now his school would have gorgeous wooden floors, suffused with local nostalgia.

And on the way back to the school, he found two brand-new warehouse windows at a garbage dump, and threw those in the truck as well.

But now, how to pay for the labor to lay the floor, hang windows, build walls and paint everything - not to mention wiring, plumbing and making sure everything was up to code?

Again, Gittinger's passion played an unexpected but instrumental role. One day while he was screwing in the emergency exit lights, a 20-something guy walked through the front door. He was an aspiring guitarist who had heard about Gittinger's school.

"Dude, got any extra paint brushes?" he asked. "I'd be happy to help."

Many other volunteers helped out along the way. This wasn't just a business, people sensed. The launching of the school had become a cause, with Gittinger as its evangelist.

All in all, Gittinger estimates that he added about $1 million worth of improvements to the facility - but he spent only a tenth of that to get it finished. Better yet, he already has 90 applications from musicians who want to come play at the Detroit School of Rock and Pop Music. Not bad, considering that landing those first customers is the single most difficult task for any startup.

Based on his projections, Gittinger is now on the verge of leaping from the dollar-poor life of a drummer to the six-figure life of a drummer entrepreneur. Yeah, there's doom and gloom in all the major economic indicators. But does that really matter to Gittinger? Frankly, I'm not even sure he knows there's an economy out there. He's far too focused on his grand opening.

Next week I'll take up specific strategies that real entrepreneurs have used to counteract the impact of the recession.

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